Article 35 - The Sacrament of Lord's Supper
THE SACRAMENT OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
We believe and confess that our Saviour Jesus Christ has instituted the sacrament of the holy supper to nourish and sustain those whom He has already regenerated and incorporated into His family, which is His church.
Those who are born anew have a twofold life. One is physical and temporal, which they received in their first birth and is common to all men. The other is spiritual and heavenly, which is given them in their second birth and is effected by the word of the gospel in the communion of the body of Christ. This life is not common to all but only to the elect of God.
For the support of the physical and earthly life God has ordained earthly and material bread. This bread is common to all just as life is common to all. For the support of the spiritual and heavenly life, which believers have, He has sent them a living bread which came down from heaven (John 6:51), namely, Jesus Christ, who nourishes and sustains the spiritual life of the believers when He is eaten by them, that is, spiritually appropriated and received by faith.
To represent to us the spiritual and heavenly bread, Christ has instituted earthly and visible bread as a sacrament of His body and wine as a sacrament of His blood. He testifies to us that as certainly as we take and hold the sacrament in our hands and eat and drink it with our mouths, by which our physical life is then sustained, so certainly do we receive by faith, as the hand and mouth of our soul, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Saviour, in our souls for our spiritual life.
It is beyond any doubt that Jesus Christ did not commend His sacraments to us in vain. Therefore He works in us all that He represents to us by these holy signs. We do not understand the manner in which this is done, just as we do not comprehend the hidden activity of the Spirit of God. Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what we eat and drink is the true, natural body and the true blood of Christ. However, the manner in which we eat it is not by mouth but in the spirit by faith. In that way Jesus Christ always remains seated at the right hand of God His Father in heaven; yet He does not cease to communicate Himself to us by faith. This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ makes us partakers of Himself with all His benefits and gives us the grace to enjoy both Himself and the merit of His suffering and death. He nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of His flesh, and refreshes and renews them by the drinking of His blood.
Although the sacrament is joined together with that which is signified, the latter is not always received by all. The wicked certainly takes the sacrament to his condemnation, but he does not receive the truth of the sacrament. Thus Judas and Simon the sorcerer both received the sacrament, but they did not receive Christ, who is signified by it. He is communicated exclusively to the believers.
Finally, we receive this holy sacrament in the congregation of the people of God with humility and reverence as we together commemorate the death of Christ our Saviour with thanksgiving and we confess our faith and Christian religion. Therefore no one should come to this table without careful self-examination, lest by eating this bread and drinking from this cup, he eat and drink judgment upon himself (1 Corinthians 11:28,29). In short, we are moved by the use of this holy sacrament to a fervent love of God and our neighbours. Therefore we reject as desecrations all additions and damnable inventions which men have mixed with the sacraments. We declare that we should be content with the ordinance taught by Christ and His apostles and should speak about it as they have spoken.
PURPOSE OF LORD’S SUPPER
The people of deBres’ congregation had been raised in the Roman Catholic faith. In relation to the Lord’s Supper, these people had been taught that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary so many centuries earlier did not ultimately help a sinner today unless a priest offered Christ to God again and again. According to Roman Catholic teaching, this recurring sacrifice of Jesus Christ took place in the sacrament of Lord’s Supper (known in Roman Catholic circles as the ‘mass’). The Church of the Reformation caught this teaching in Lord’s Day 30.80 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “the mass teaches, first, that the living and the dead do not have forgiveness of sins through the suffering of Christ [on Calvary’s cross many years ago] unless He is still offered for them daily by the priests….”
In Article 21 deBres had already echoed Scripture’s teaching on the value of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary: Christ “presented Himself in our place before His Father, appeasing God’s wrath by His full satisfaction, offering Himself on the tree of the cross, where He poured out His precious blood to purge away our sins.” If, then, Christ’s sacrifice does not need to be repeated, what is the correct understanding of this sacrament? What has the Lord revealed about the purpose of His supper? For the benefit of His congregation, deBres summarized Biblical instruction on the point like this: “We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ has instituted the sacrament of the holy supper to nourish and sustain those whom He has already regenerated and incorporated into His family, which is His Church.” Notice deBres’ emphasis on nourishment as purpose of this sacrament. We are weak (see Article 33); so God, mindful of our weakness, gives us this supper to nourish us. How does that work?
THE REGENERATED HAVE A TWOFOLD LIFE
DeBres speaks about two forms of life. “One is physical and temporal ..., the other is spiritual and heavenly.” The physical, temporal life describes our physical bodies, which require food in order to survive. “For the support of the physical and earthly life God has ordained earthly and material bread. This bread is common to all just as life is common to all.” It’s something we all observe and experience daily: all people depend on earthly foodstuffs in order to survive.
All people, however, have a second aspect to their beings, and that is their spiritual, ‘religious’ side. Because of the fall into sin, this spiritual ‘self’ is dead (Ephesians 2:1) – which is to say that one’s focus and hope is not on the living God but on some created thing (be it self or an idol or even Satan). By the grace of the Lord God, some people have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit so that they are raised to new life; their spiritual ‘self’ is alive with a heavenly life (see Article 24). Like physical life, this spiritual life also requires nourishment and sustenance in order to live and thrive. “For the support of the spiritual and heavenly life, which believers have, [God] has sent them a living bread which came down from heaven, namely, Jesus Christ, who nourishes and sustains the spiritual life of the believers when He is eaten by them.” Christ is the spiritual food for the soul of the believers, the regenerated.
DeBres learned this from Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus once told the Jews, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:48-51). Manna could only nourish and sustain the physical body in its temporal existence, but Christ’s flesh, spiritual food, nourishes and sustains unto eternity.
THE LORD’S SUPPER
How, though, does Christ nourish regenerated sinners with His own flesh, “the living bread”? Like all things spiritual, spiritual food and drink are invisible to the naked eye. In order to reassure us therefore that He does indeed nourish and refresh our souls with spiritual food and drink, Christ has given us a sign and seal of this reality in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. “To represent to us the spiritual and heavenly bread, Christ has instituted earthly and visible bread as a sacrament of His body and wine as a sacrament of His blood. He testifies to us that as certainly as we take and hold the sacrament in our hands and eat and drink it with our mouths, by which our physical life is then sustained, so certainly do we receive by faith, as the hand and mouth of our soul, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior, in our souls for our spiritual life.” That brings us to a discussion of what this sacrament is all about.
THE SUPPER AND PASSOVER
The New Testament sacrament of Lord’s Supper replaces the Old Testament sacrament of Passover – just as Baptism replaced Circumcision (see Article 34). Accordingly, the meaning of the New Testament Lord’s Supper is essentially identical to the meaning of its Old Testament predecessor.
The Lord God instituted Passover in the context of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. The angel of death was to come to Egypt on a given night and kill all the firstborn of the land. To escape the deadly work of the death angel, the people of Israel were to kill a lamb and spread its blood on the lintel and doorposts of their homes. The Israelites were no better than the Egyptians and so deserved God’s judgment as much as their Egyptian neighbors, but by God’s gracious ordinance the Passover lamb would die in their place. The menu for the Passover meal included not just the Passover lamb, but also some bitter herbs and unleavened bread. See Exodus 12:1-8.
Two elements can be distinguished in the Passover. It involved 1) an offering, and 2) a meal. The offering of the lamb pointed to Calvary, how Christ as “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) would die in place of the sinner. To Israel the offering functioned as a visible presentation of the glorious gospel of redemption, namely, God granted deliverance from sin and from His judgment on sin through the death of Another. The people of Israel should eat this Passover lamb not just to receive strength for the coming Exodus journey out of Egypt, but especially to receive reassurance that God’s gift of redemption was really for them (see Article 33, about the Sacraments as Seals).
This is why the Lord commanded His people to celebrate the Passover every year anew (Leviticus 23:4ff; Numbers 28:16ff; Deuteronomy 16:1ff). Each year the people of Israel were required to remember both the slavery they experienced in Egypt (symbolic as it was of slavery to sin and Satan) as well as the deliverance from this slavery (symbolic of deliverance from sin and Satan through Jesus Christ). Israel was not to forget; repeatedly the people were to slaughter a lamb to remind them of the coming Savior, and repeatedly they were to eat that lamb as source of spiritual nourishment in the ongoing struggles of life’s journeys.
INSTITUTION OF LORD’S SUPPER
As a Son of Israel, Jesus also ate the Passover (Matthew 26:26), including the lamb that foreshadowed His own death. In fact, though thousands of lambs had been slaughtered at hundreds of Passover celebrations over the centuries, those lambs could never take away sin and deliver sinners from God’s Angel of Death (Hebrews 10:1-4); the lambs of each Passover insisted that “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) go to the cross to pay for sin. Jesus knew He was “the Lamb of God”, and so knew when He ate the Passover lamb that He had to die for sin Himself.
In that context, “as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples” (Matthew 26:26). How intriguing! Why did Jesus take bread, while there was on the table the meat of the Passover lamb – the lamb that symbolized Himself? Would that meat not be the natural representation of Himself – Lamb of God that He was who would be sacrificed in place of sinners? He chose bread instead of meat because His coming sacrifice on the cross would put an end to every shedding of blood – including that of lambs killed to pay for sin. Here is the good news of the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb! Just as the sacrificed lamb of the Old Testament sacrament of Passover illustrated to Israel the coming sacrifice of “the Lamb of God” on Calvary’s cross, so the (bloodless) bread of the New Testament sacrament of Lord’s Supper illustrates to the Church the completed sacrifice of “the Lamb of God” on Good Friday. As Israel ate the lamb so that each Israelite might be assured that the coming “Lamb of God” would die for them, so Church members are told to eat the bread as reassurance that Christ truly died for their benefit.
THE LORD’S SUPPER AND THE COVENANT
During the institution of the new sacrament, Jesus held up a cup and said to His disciples, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:27,28). The word ‘covenant’ usually directs our thoughts to the sacrament of Baptism. However, the word ‘covenant’ should equally make us think of the Lord’s Supper, for the reality of the covenant is driven home to us also in this sacrament.
Jesus’ phrase “My blood of the new covenant” comes from Exodus 24. After the Lord God delivered Israel from their bondage in Egypt (Exodus 14), He established with His people His covenant of grace at Mt Sinai (Exodus 20). God, then, on grounds of the gospel of the lamb, instituted a bond of love between Himself and this nation of sinners; He claimed the people as His own. The people, of course, should then live as God’s people, and God spelled out what that should look like in Exodus 21-23. Once that covenant was made, Moses “built an altar” and then (says Exodus 24:5-8) Moses “sent young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant” –that’s the laws of Exodus 21-23– “and read [it] in the hearing of the people” – for the people needed to know how to live holy lives befitting people of such a God. Once the people heard the stipulations of God’s bond of love with them, “they said, ‘All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood” which he’d earlier set aside in basins, and “sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.’”
Notice: there is one blood collected from the sacrificed animals. Moses sprinkled some of that blood on the altar for God, and sprinkled the other half on the people. This one blood links God to the people, and the people to God; it is because of blood that a bond of love can exist between holy God and this sinful people. The blood sprinkled on the altar (God) and the people spells out the unity between God and these people, and so makes graphically visible the wealth caught in the gospel of the Passover lamb: sinful Israel is spared God’s sentence of death so that God might establish His bond of love with them. In truth, here is glorious gospel, pure and sparkling!
Now Jesus, after He has replaced the Passover lamb with the bread, took the cup and blessed it, and then spoke of “My blood of the new covenant”. No, we do not read of the cup containing blood, or of blood being sprinkled, for Christ Himself is the Lamb who would die once for all. The content of the cup would from now on symbolize the blood this Lamb shed once for all on the cross. That’s also the import of the word ‘new’. This covenant is not different from the covenant of Mt Sinai (with its animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins), but is new inasmuch as it has entered a new phase with its focus on Christ’s completed work.
This cup Jesus now “gave to” each disciple (Matthew 26:27) with the command to “drink from it.” Each disciple should know that God’s covenant of love was established with and was real for each of them on the ground that Christ’s blood on the cross took their sins away. Just as the Israelites of Exodus 24 received in the blood sprinkled on them a visible proof of God’s covenant with them, so the disciples –and we today– have tangible evidence of the reality of God’s covenant with us by receiving the cup. As I drink from this cup, I am assured of God’s hearty love for me; He made His covenant even with me. The cup, then, spells out the wonderful consequence that follows from the Lamb’s sacrifice; for Christ’s sake I actually belong to God!
Given such a glorious message caught in the sacrament of Lord’s Supper, deBres can confidently confess, “It is beyond any doubt that Jesus Christ did not commend His sacraments to us in vain.” One may not be able to understand precisely how eating and drinking the body and blood of the Lord in the sacrament strengthens faith and nourishes the soul. Yet the fact of the matter is that at His table we are united with the same Christ who is today in heaven as our Head and Mediator, and we are assured that we are fully His – and His riches are ours.
A MEAL AT THE LORD’S TABLE
In Matthew 26 we read that Jesus and His disciples were eating around a table. Christ was the host, with His disciples around Him. Though the Passover was a sacrifice and a meal (see above), the Lord’s Supper which Christ instituted had no sacrifice, no offering, because Christ Himself would die the next day. So Paul could later write, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The New Testament picture, then, knows only the element of a meal, and not the element of the sacrifice.
One enjoys a meal with friends, not with enemies. Yet with whom did Christ eat? He ate with sinners, persons who by nature are enemies of God! Jesus knew that the disciples at table with Him were so depraved that they would shortly desert Him (see Matthew 26:31), and He knew too that one would soon declare three times that he had nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth in His hour of need (see Matthew 26:34). Yet with men as these Jesus sat down to a meal, and even offered them bread with the instruction to “take, eat; this is My body,” and gave a cup with the command to “drink from it, all of you.” The reality of sin did not cause Jesus to withhold the sacrament from these men. Rather, since Christ would go to the cross for the benefit of sinners and reconcile them to God, Jesus the Son of God now sat at table with sinners! How different the circumstances in Genesis 3, when we were driven out of Paradise on account of our fall into sin, exiled from the presence of God! Now we’re told to sit at table with the Son of God; how marvelous the gospel!! Well does deBres connect sitting at table with Jesus Christ and the strengthening of faith: “This banquet” –notice that delightful word– “is a spiritual table at which Christ makes us partakers of Himself with all His benefits and gives us the grace to enjoy both Himself and the merit of His suffering and death. He nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of His flesh, and refreshes and renews them by the drinking of His blood.”
SIGNS AND SEALS
Should Thomas doubt that the Lamb of God would die for him? Should Peter remain uncertain as to whether God’s covenant of grace was really valid for him – crass liar that he was? How comforting Jesus’ words to each disciple when He extended the bread to them, “Take, eat; this is My body” (Matthew 26:26). And how pastorally sensitive was Jesus’ formulation when He held out the cup to His disciples, and said, “Drink from it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27). Christ’s command was addressed to each of the disciples – to Peter and to John and to Thomas and to Matthew. He did so in order to personalize the message of the sacrament; none should doubt that the gospel of the sacrament was true for the self. The picture of the sacrament, with Christ’s body being broken and His blood shed, was not to remain at arm’s length from the participants, as if its message was a general truth not necessarily valid for them personally; rather, each was to eat and drink personally so that each might be reassured that Christ’s body was broken and His blood shed for them. As the church confesses in Lord’s Day 28: “as surely as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and the cup of the Lord as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely does He Himself nourish and refresh my soul to everlasting life with His crucified body and blood.” No individual child of God may be left doubting whether Christ’s sacrifice benefits him.
NOURISHMENT BY FAITH
Does my sitting at the table automatically make me partake of the riches of the table? DeBres gives this answer: “Although the sacrament is joined together with that which is signified, the latter is not always received by all. The wicked certainly takes the sacrament to his condemnation, but he does not receive the truth of the sacrament.” One can sit at a table laden with food, but this food will not nourish the body unless it is eaten. So it is with the table of the Lord. It is laden with rich food for the soul, but the soul will not be nourished unless one eats this food, not with the mouth, but by faith.
To appreciate what it means to eat ‘by faith’, we do well to consider the instructions God gave to Israel concerning the first Passover. Israel was told (Exodus 12:1-14) on the first day of the month (vs 2) to set aside a lamb on the tenth day of the month (vs 3) to be killed on the fourteenth day (vs 6). On the first day of the month they were told what to do two weeks later with the lamb’s blood; they were to smear it on the doorposts and lintel of the door of their home (vs 7). They were also told on the first day that on the fourteenth they had to eat the lamb roasted (not raw or boiled) as well as eat unleavened bread (which is bread made without yeast) and bitter herbs (vs 8). More, when they ate this meal on the fourteenth day, they had to wear “a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand” (vs 11).
There was something very distasteful, even offensive, about the meal God wanted His people to eat on the fourteenth of the month. Eat a meal when there’s blood around your door…, and the menu is bitterly distasteful herbs for vegetables and a heavy piece of unleavened bread?! It’s anything but appetizing! Yet for two weeks the people could think on the coming meal…, could think about whether to obey or not…. To top it all off, God announced that an angel of death would come through the land checking the doors…. Who had heard of such a thing before?! To obey took faith.
What was God’s purpose in all this? God was teaching His people to live and walk by faith. They had to embrace as true God’s promise that He would deliver them from Egypt’s slavery, and had to entrust themselves and their loved ones to His course of action. So they had to obey God’s instructions, never mind whether they found those instructions agreeable or offensive, logical or foolish. Embracing God’s promises, entrusting oneself to His care, obeying His commands: these actions are the evidence of faith. The apostle to the Hebrews describes faith repeatedly as action; “by faith Abel offered…, by faith Noah … prepared an ark…, by faith Abraham … went…, by faith Isaac blessed…, by faith [Moses] kept the Passover” (Hebrews 11:4-28). Israel’s obedience to God’s commands in the days before their Exodus pointed up that they believed God and so took His instructions seriously. At the same time God strengthened their faith through that sacrament when they could witness that the Angel of Death actually did pass their houses by (though not their Egyptian neighbors’), and they actually did escape the slavery of Egypt in the Exodus itself.
So it is, too, at the table of the Lord. Sitting at the Lord’s Table only benefits me if I believe that Christ saves me from Satan’s bondage through His sacrifice on the cross – as the bread and the wine signify. This faith is strengthened when I look past the bread and wine to the work Christ has done for me on the cross. I embrace as true His work of deliverance, I entrust myself to His work as Mediator before God, I obey His instruction to eat that little piece of bread and drink that small drop of wine as tokens of His body and blood. The Lord at His table strengthens the faith I exhibit in actions of obedience, and reassures me in the midst of life’s storms and questions that I really am a child of His. That’s how, at His table, my soul is nourished to everlasting life.
Here lies the difference between the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is a sacrament I receive; I am passive, for as a child I am yet unaware. With the Lord’s Supper I am active, I respond to what God says. In the Lord’s Supper I reply to what God has promised me in baptism, when He established His covenant with me and declared that I was His child. I respond by going to the Table and eating the tokens of His work for me. As deBres writes, “the manner in which we eat [the body of Christ] is not by mouth but in the spirit by faith.”
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He used bread and wine (see Matthew 26:26-29). Are we to use bread today, regardless of whether bread is commonplace in one’s culture? Are we to use only wine, irrespective of whether one struggles (has struggled) with alcohol abuse?
Our Savior has instituted the Lord’s Supper so that sinners’ attention might be directed to His perfect sacrifice in our place. The “Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper” in the Book of Praise (page 600) catches this notion well: “Brothers and sisters, in order that may now be nourished with Christ, the true heavenly bread, we must not cling with our hearts to the outward symbols of bread and wine, but lift our hearts on high in heaven, where Christ, our advocate, is, at the right hand of His heavenly Father.” A participant’s gaze, then, may not be fixed on the bread (is it cut right, is it leavened or unleavened, is it barley bread or wheat – or even sago bread), and on the cup (is there one cup or many, does it contain alcoholic wine or fruit juice – or even tea). Debates on questions as these serve only to tear one’s eye away from the Savior and the glorious gospel He prepared – just what Satan wants. Jesus used bread and wine as signs and seals of His gospel; let the church use bread and wine – and insist that this matter is too secondary to receive much attention. If a brother or sister is so convinced that the content of the cup hinders his strengthening, let the church recognize his weakness and give an alternative. As long as the focus of each participant remains on Christ!
FENCING OF THE TABLE
Ought the table of the Lord to be open to all and sundry who have the whim to attend? The answer is obviously negative. The sacrament is given to the church for the strengthening of faith. It follows that those who attend must possess faith – else their faith cannot be strengthened.
Yet faith is not a static something that sits on a shelf so that I can point to it and say, ‘See, I have faith, there it is.’ Rather, faith is action (see Article 22), is dynamic; it manifests itself in deeds (James 2:14-26). Deeds give opportunity for self-examination, as well as for others to evaluate what makes you tick. As we speak about the question of who may attend the table of the Lord, we need –in line with Scripture to consider three layers of responsibility. The first is the individual, the second is the communal, and the third is the pastoral.
FIRST LAYER – SELF-EXAMINATION
Paul’s instruction to the Christians of Corinth was clear: “let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). That the apostle placed primary emphasis on the individual is nothing new. In the Old Testament the Lord God gave responsibility first of all to the individual in Israel. If a person in Israel became unclean (through bodily discharge, touching a dead body, etc), it was primarily the responsibility of the unclean individual to stay away from the tabernacle, wash oneself, and make the necessary sacrifices before God (see, for example, Leviticus 12). The same emphasis on personal responsibility pervades the New Testament.
The Corinthian Christians had the practice of eating a meal together. This congregational meal was common in the early church, and appears to have flowed into a Lord’s Supper celebration (see Acts 2:42). In Corinth, though, the rich of the congregation ate luxuriously while the poor looked on, and when the rich had eaten sufficiently (and the poor were still hungry), the Lord’s Supper was celebrated (see vss 21, 33-34). Since the brotherly love that must characterize the Lord’s Table was so sadly lacking in this conduct, Paul admonished the Corinthians for selfishness and greed, and instructed them to have their meals at home (vss 22,34).
In this context Paul drew attention to Christ’s example. “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you [when I first preached the gospel to you]: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’” (vss 23-25). If in this Supper Jesus Christ gave evidence of His selfless obedience to God and His trust in God by denying Himself and going to the cross to benefit another, how proper it is for His people also to deny self in obedience to the Lord. Action gives evidence of faith!
For that reason each Christian of Corinth was instructed to “examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (vs 28). If the bread and cup of the Lord’s supper point up what Christ did for me in having His body broken on the cross and His blood shed for my salvation, it will not do for me to act selfishly and cold-heartedly to my poorer brothers and sisters. So Paul says: “whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner” –and that’s to say, without the spirit of self-emptying Christ displayed– “will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (vs 27). So: “let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of that cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (vs 28,29). The well-to-do in the Corinthian congregation were by their selfishness in fact eating and drinking the Lord’s supper “in an unworthy manner” and the result was that “many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (vs 30). In other words: their selfish attitude at the Lord’s Table prompted God to bring sickness and death within their congregation. Hence the desperate need for fencing the table in relation to oneself.
What does self-examination involve? The “Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper” (Book of Praise, page 595) elaborates on this notion of self-examination. The “Form” mentions the following three parts:
- “Let everyone consider his sins and accursedness so that he, detesting himself, may humble himself before God.” The point of self-examination is not to discover whether or not one has sinned. The Form takes one’s “sins and accursedness” for granted, and asks us to “consider” these “sins and accursedness”, to evaluate what we think of our sins. Considering our sins rightly makes one humble before God. ‘Humble’ is the key word here. (See also the first part of the Catechism, which deals with our Sin and Misery, Lord’s Days 2-4).
- In second place, each is to “search his heart whether he also believes the sure promise of God that all his sins are forgiven him only for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ….” The significant word here is ‘believe’. The point is, then, whether one’s eyes are fixed on Christ’s sacrifice, whether one is convinced that Christ’s sacrifice covers one’s sins. It is not that hard to determine whether or not one’s focus is on Christ such that he finds in Christ all he needs for his salvation. (See the second part of the Catechism, which deals with Our Deliverance in Lord’s Days 5-31).
- The third aspect of self-examination revolves around the cause of your conduct. “Let everyone examine his conscience whether it is his sincere desire to show true thankfulness to God with his entire life….” What makes you tick? Are the things you do prompted by gratitude for what God has done in Christ, or are they prompted by fear of God, or perhaps by confidence in oneself? Gratitude to God for what He did for us in Christ of necessity prompts love for the neighbor – for we reflect what God has done for us. (See the third part of the Catechism, which deals with Our Thankfulness, Lord’s Days 32-52).
As I examine myself, will I confess that I am a lost sinner? Do I believe that Christ has paid for all my sins? Do I, in thankfulness to God, seek to live a life of obedience to God and love to my neighbor? Where the answer to such questions is Yes, God commands me (sinner that I am) to sit down at His table. For He wants to impress upon me what He has done for me in Christ. Therefore He tells me to eat the bread and to drink the wine. And He tells me that as surely as I taste these, so certainly has He given Christ for me. How encouraging His word of promise!
On the other hand, what am I to do if I actually quite enjoy my sins, or see my faith in Christ as little more than an insurance for the day of death? In such a situation, the responsibility to stay away from the table of the Lord is first of all my own! The Lord of the table is a holy God, and all my actions –and the motivations behind them– are well known to this God. I dare not defy the holiness of this God and His table, and so eat and drink judgment upon myself. Fencing is first of all my personal responsibility!
SECOND LAYER – COMMUNAL CARE
As the Lord God loved undeserving sinners (and so sent His Son to earth to redeem them), so the Lord would also have people love people – irrespective of whether the other is friendly or abhorrent. The Lord God instructed His Old Testament people to be the brother’s keeper: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). The Lord Jesus Christ said that the second great commandment of the law was to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). If in Corinth the consequence of unholy attendance at the Lord’s table was that “many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (as the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to explain, 1 Corinthians 11:30), then care for the brotherhood means that the congregation discourage from attending a brother or sister they know is erring – lest they allow God’s judgment to fall upon them (1 Corinthians 11:31). So Paul instructed the congregation (see 1 Corinthians 1:2) to “deliver … to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” the man who “has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
There is a distinct parallel here with the task God gave to the Old Testament. “When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot…, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest” (Leviticus 13:2). The priest in turn pronounced the man leprous and therefore unclean for long periods of time, even cutting him off from the communion of the people and forbidding his coming to the tabernacle for the long term. One can understand that one would not readily volunteer to go to the priest for fear of such consequences. Hence the passive formulation in the text is striking. In care for the holiness of the tabernacle and the people of God, one might need to instruct the neighbor to go to the priest, or even bring him there. The passage, then, indicates that responsibility for one’s going to the Lord in the tabernacle went beyond the individual to include also the community as a whole. This communal responsibility, we realize, is also behind the instruction to admonish a brother when he sins (see Matthew 18:15; Galatians 6:1; see also Article 32).
THIRD LAYER – THE ELDERS
Only after one has understood personal and communal responsibility in maintaining the holiness of the Lord’s table can one rightly speak of the pastoral role of the elders. They need to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2), and shepherding can mean that one forbids a member from attending the table of the Lord lest he eat and drink judgment on himself and God’s wrath be provoked against the congregation (see 1 Corinthians 11:12-32). As the priest of the Old Testament could forbid an Israelite from entering the tabernacle of the Lord due to leprosy (Leviticus 13), so the elders of the New Testament can forbid a child of God from attending the table of the Lord due to unresolved sin.
To carry out their task of guarding the table of the Lord, elders speak with those in the congregation who wish to attend the Lord’s table. Before such a member makes profession of faith, the elders visit, speak, listen, and attempt to gauge what lives in the heart of this (young) brother or sister. Elders will respect the prior responsibility of the congregation and let the congregation know that a particular person desires to attend the table – and so give the congregation opportunity to register its dissent before public profession of faith. Further, elders remain in constant touch with congregation members, officially through an annual home visit and unofficially through regular contact in the ebb and flow of daily living. They also keep their ear open to reports they receive from congregation members about a brother’s refusal to accept admonition (Matthew 18:17). On the basis of their knowledge about a member’s spiritual health, the elders may deny a given member access to the table of the Lord. Fencing the table is also their responsibility.
Altogether, individual, communal and pastoral responsibility places a good fence around the table of the Lord. The churches give clear expression to their conviction that the Lord of the table is holy.
Should the fence, now, be less restrictive when it comes to guests? A testimony from elders elsewhere (an ‘attestation’) can cover the third layer (and therefore the second) for a visitor in the congregation. But a personal testimony from a guest can never do more than cover the first layer. Even a supporting testimony from his friend in the congregation can do no more than nibble at the edges of the second layer – to say now nothing of the third layer. Is it then upright for a consistory to be satisfied with a less restrictive policy in relation to guests than for congregation members?
The attendance of children at the Lord’s Supper was not a point of discussion in church history until recently. Nowhere do we find any prohibition in the Old Testament that children could not participate in the sacrament of Passover. Yet Reformed churches have understood that the Lord Jesus Christ has instituted the Lord’s Supper for the strengthening of faith. At the very least, then, those who participate must have faith, and the community and the elders must be convinced that the faith is real. More, Reformed churches have understood that those who would attend need to “rightly examine” themselves (1 Corinthians 11:28), and one can rightly question whether children have that ability. For this double reason, Reformed churches have historically not given children a place at the table of the Lord’s Supper.
Meanwhile, we do well to reiterate that the promises of God remain true also for children. Those promises have been signified and sealed to them in holy baptism. Let parents and churches impress those riches on the children of the covenant, and teach them to respond in maturity to those promises and learn to examine themselves rightly. More, let parents and churches teach their members of all ages to use the sacrament – where the word ‘use’ means much more than the word ‘receive’ (see the discussion of Article 33). Even without sitting at the table of the Lord children (and others) can be encouraged through the use of the sacrament. Then, at an age of discernment, they most certainly are welcome at the table of the Lord.
Points for Discussion:
- Why does deBres speak in this article about twofold bread? What is he referring to?
- Explain the meaning of the Passover.
- What is the connection between Passover and the Lord’s Supper?
- Why did Jesus not give His disciples meat to eat in His supper (like in Passover)? Is there any encouragement in the fact that He gave bread instead of, say, an olive?
- How is the sacrament of Lord’s Supper a sign of the covenant?
- How is it a seal of the covenant?
- How does the Lord’s Supper spell out the friendship between Christ and us?
- Is it possible to eat of the Lord’s Supper and not actually receive its nourishment? Explain.
- How important the chemical nature of the substance in the cup?
- Is it fitting for children to receive a place at the table of the Lord? Why or why not?
- Why is fencing of the Lord’s table necessary? Whose responsibility is this fencing? Outline the different levels of responsibility and what they entail.
- How does one examine oneself? What is one to examine oneself for? When is the self-examination to take place?
- Should elders have different criteria for permitting guests at the Lord’s table than they have for members? Explain your answer.
- May you expect to ‘feel’ something special when you eat or drink at the Lord’s table?